Red (James Spader) struggles to hang on the latest episode.

Red Gets Poisoned, but ‘The Blacklist’ Gets Better in “The Apothecary”

Decent writing, great casting, and a potential plot twist help The Blacklist recover some of its faded glory.

Do anything 84 times and two things will happen. First, the history of what happened the first 83 times will undoubtedly inform what happens the 84th time. Second, it’s difficult to be original. Both dynamics play out in the latest episode of The Blacklist, “The Apothecary”.

On its own, it would be exceptional, as it has all the necessary parts: surprisingly compelling baddie, and high suspense, as the main character Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader) is poisoned at the start of the episode. These elements create two big questions: will Red live, and who betrayed him? Unfortunately, the show’s past restricts either narratives’ effectiveness. After 83 episodes, coming up with a new and interesting baddie would be a challenge for any writer. Fortunately, these writers more than meet the task.

We find out in the beginning that one of Red’s closest confidants has poisoned him. While the show tries to milk the suspense, this is The Blacklist. Creator Jon Bokenkamp doesn’t kill off lead characters. Every member of the show’s core has been placed in mortal danger. All of them have survived. After all, last year, the writers had Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) fake her own death, so there’s no real suspense at the end when the antidote is found and Red’s condition stabilizes.

Before the reveal, the second, and the most successful suspenseful element is who poisoned Red. There are enough reoccurring members of his entourage that no one sticks out as an obvious candidate. After the reveal, the audience should be obsessed with why. The history of the show, however, undermines this question. Red’s already been betrayed by one of his most trusted confidantes, Mr. Kaplan (Susan Blommaert), who incidentally, was also left for dead and then resurrected. In that storyline, Kaplan’s motive was to protect Red from the destructive path he was on; he decided the only way to keep Red safe would be to betray him. The first time, this conceit tested the viewer’s ability to get lost in the series logic, even though the writers did a good job of building a plausible narrative. Going back to the same well again would prove to be extremely irritating.

What the show hasn’t done is have one of the main characters go all-out evil. Which is odd, because what initially captivated audiences was Red’s moral ambiguity. Early in the series, Keen asks Red if she can trust him, to which Red perfectly responds, “No, of course not! I’m a criminal. Criminals are notorious liars. Everything about me is a lie. But if anyone can give me a second chance, it’s you.” Red’s a bad guy. Most of the missions he sends the FBI’s way are designed to further his interests. More and more, however, Red’s drifted to being a good guy.

Although heartbreaking, it’d be refreshing to see one of the good guys go bad. Like killing off people, the series has a history of going to this well: alluding to someone turning bad, only to have them have a change of heart. One of the ways The Blacklist originally hooked its audience was to have Tom Keen (Ryan Eggold) turn out to be a spy hired to seduce Liz. Like Liz’s death, however, this turned out to be a head fake, and Tom got worked into the show as another good guy. There were also a few moments where it looked like Samar Navabi (Mozhan Marnò) was going to change sides and align with Red, only to back away from this development.

While the choice isn’t binary, the writers need to choose one of two directions. First, that the betrayer is an essentially good person with noble intentions, which would just be a rehash of the Mr. Kaplan plot line. Or second, the betrayer could be a true baddie. The series could reveal a known character had spent the entire time befriending Red only to get close enough to betray him. This would introduce another, newer arc into the series. Additionally, it could cause a split between Red and the FBI task force he’s been working with. Next year could be spent with Director Harold Cooper (Harry Lennix) chasing Red, assisted by a few background characters. There’s a lot of talent that’s gone into the series, and they all deserve a chance to do something more than the typical rehashed plots the show’s featured this year.

The Blacklist‘s rogues’ gallery offers 100 hundred different flavors, but with 84 episodes under its belt, coming up with a different, interesting villain is clearly a challenge for the writers. They must navigate an increasingly narrowing balance beam between rehashed characters and completely unrealistic absurdities. The question becomes, do the show’s writers make another version of vanilla, or try a risky blend, like squid sorbet? There’ve been a few blunt force baddies, exemplified by Luther Todd Braxton (Ron Pearlman); some effete baddies, like Alistair Pitt (Tony Shaloub); surprisingly unconventional ones, like Dr. James Covington (Ron Cephas Jones), who’d implant black market organs into people and extort rent out of them; or twisty villains, like Nasim Bakhash — AKA the Djinn (Christine Tawfik) — who made her fortune by arranging sadistic fantasies for her clients, turning a garden-variety plot into a Pedro Almodóvar-level examination of perversity and skill.

This week’s bad guy, Asa Hightower (Jamie Harrold), however, blows away the scales of creepiness. He creates toxins that are engineered to the specific biology of each of his victims. Harrold’s an inspired casting; his small physique and quiet mannerism generates sympathy for him that’s quickly dispensed with when the audience learns he keeps his wife Ruby (Stacie Morgan Lewis) sedated and in bed.

These two actors reflect one of the strongest elements of the series: the ability to cast properly. The Blacklist has drawn from a stable of exceptionally acclaimed actors, including Alan Alda, David Strathairn, Jane Alexander, and Christine Lahti, lesser-known but still excellent performers, such as Deirdre Lovejoy, Edi Gathegi, Fisher Stevens, to unknowns, like Lewis.

Despite that, the problems facing The Blacklist aren’t new. Almost every series comes with an expiration date. For The Blacklist to makes it to season five, two things should be required of it. First, season five should be its last. Second, the series needs a major overhaul, either by completely changing the set-up, as David Greenwalt and Joss Whedon did in 2004 for the final season of Angel, or juggling the cast — getting rid of the main lead and one or two other characters — like David Shore did in the final season of House. Without some kind of reset, it might be best to just put the series out of its misery.

RATING 6 / 10